The Queen Charlotte Track, Eleanor Hughes discovers, is not your usual multi-day hiking experience.
At the top of the South Island, the Cougar Line water taxi left the Picton shoreline at 10am, taking myself and two friends, along with other hikers and holidaymakers, out into the idyllic Queen Charlotte Sound. We were headed for Ship Cove and the iconic Queen Charlotte Track, which stretches from Ship Cove to Anakiwa.
Seventy-two kilometres long, the Queen Charlotte Track is a journey through panoramic ocean views, thriving native bush, and encounters with all manner of wildlife, from weka and woodpigeon to seals. Although it’s possible to do the track in three days, we were taking our time, spreading the walk over five days, staying at campsites and lugging a tent, sleeping bag, hiking stove, food and clothing. It was a great idea – but I discovered we could have made things easier for ourselves.
En route to Ship Cove, the water taxi stopped in at Bay of Many Coves. We were surprised to find a stunning resort spread up the bush-covered hill from the restaurant/café at the jetty edge; somehow, this luxurious place looked a little strange (but still gorgeous), sited as it was, in the middle of nowhere. With supplies for the resort and those on board staying there dropped off, we motored back out of the bay and arrived at Ship Cove at 11a.m.
A monument commemorating James Cook’s four visits there in the 1770s stands a short distance from the jetty. Information panels tell of Cook’s visits, encounters with Māori, and the Māori occupation of Queen Charlotte Sound. Over several hundred years, the area was an important point of arrival and departure for waka crossing the Cook Strait. Māori did not live permanently in Ship Cove, coming to fish in summer, collect seasonal food, make and trade stone tools, and await good weather to make the Strait crossing. Once educated, we set off for Madsens Camp, around 21km away, with only our daypacks. Our larger backpacks were left on the water taxi for Cougar Line to shuttle there, arranged when we’d booked our transport.
From Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge
A climb brought us to Ship Cove Saddle where we read the history of distant Motuara Island, now a wildlife sanctuary. The trail wound down to picturesque Schoolhouse Bay, on Resolution Bay’s western side, site of a DOC camping ground. Another climb led to Tawa Saddle, overlooking Endeavour Inlet. Picnic tables along the way, where inquisitive weka appeared, were situated to enjoy views of green coastline twisting like swirling ‘S’s’ in the Queen Charlotte Sound, a stunning mixture of turquoise and azure shades.
The mostly-shaded path narrowed; short bridges crossed streams; rock walls resembling schist were passed.
Numerous jetties service the cluster of holiday homes, some offering accommodation, at Endeavour Inlet. I wandered onto honey-coloured, stony beaches where boatsheds and upturned dinghies dotted the shore.
For those wanting more opulence than a tent, Furneaux Lodge is 17.1km from Ship Cove lying on a flat section of Endeavour Inlet’s scenic seafront. It took us around 5 hours to reach, and it offers suites, cottages, basic cabins and a restaurant.
The next hour walking to Madsen’s Camp, our destination, was fairly flat and followed the coastline, passing where nearly 100 Marlborough Antimony Company mine workers and their families once lived. The company, established in the 1870s, mined minerals smelted to form antimony used in coloured glazes and glassware. Miners Camp, situated nearby, provides camping, cabin and farmstay facilities. Madsen’s Camp has camping sites and three cabins.
Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove Resort
If you’re after more luxurious accommodation than DOC camping sites and overnighted at Furneaux Lodge, then your next stop could be Punga Cove Resort. It’s situated on the water’s edge further along Endeavour Inlet. This is a 3-4 hour, approximately 12km, undulating bush walk on the Queen Charlotte Track making for an easy day. The resort, in garden surrounds, offers suites, studios, chalets, apartments and basic rooms. Kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and swimming and spa pools are also available. Having already walked an hour on from Furneaux Lodge to Madsen’s Camp the previous day, it took us 3 hours to get to the resort, its over-the-water Boatshed Café & Bar a perfect lunch spot before continuing on.
Leaving the coast behind, an hour’s relentless climb which would probably have kids moaning but is not difficult, gave views of farmland and pine forest. Two hours in, we reached Totaranui Viewpoint; here the vista overlooked Deep Bay and Endeavour Inlet to bush-covered islands and land beyond: giant green waves in a flat blue sea.
Along the ridgeline, aquamarine Kenepuru Sound came into view. Eatwells Lookout is a half hour return walk off the main track. The three of us looked at its incline and, after having just conquered a long uphill section, gave it a miss.
Bay of Many Coves
Continuing on the Queen Charlotte Track, we looked down on the Bay of Many Coves an hour later, a picturesque palette of blues where jetties jutted into shallow water that darkened further out.
Weka were in abundance at DOC’s Bay of Many Coves Campsite which has a compostable toilet and flat camping sites amongst sheltered bush . The cooking shelter looks over the cove.
Around ten minutes’ walk away, a one and a half hour trail leads off Queen Charlotte Track to Bay of Many Coves Resort. Approximately a 5-hour walk from Punga Cove Resort, this is perfect for those seeking an upmarket stay at the end of day three.
Onto The Portage
On leaving our DOC campsite, the Queen Charlotte Track steepened. Manuka Lane was manuka-lined, we read panels about Kenepuru Sound, now a deep blue swirling between green-hued lands, and viewed lighter-blue Queen Charlotte Sound. Picton was a smattering of white dots stretching along the coastline, up hillsides and in valleys.
We emerged onto Torea Road, at Torea Saddle, where a memorial stands to WWI and WWII fallen soldiers. A bush track almost opposite led to Cowshed Bay, a five-hour journey from where we set out. The bay has two camping areas: one on the waterfront where a number of campervans were parked up; the other, over the road, had sites available amongst bush. There were cold showers, flushing toilets and cooking shelters.
The Portage, a THC hotel 500m west and situated on Portage Bay’s Kenepuru Sound waterfront, offers suites and rooms, bar, pool and a restaurant where we dined in the evening. If you’ve stayed at Bay of Many Coves Resort the night before, with the extra ninety minute trail from there to get back onto the Queen Charlotte Track, it would take around six hours to get back to The Portage.
We dropped backpacks at The Portage to be shuttled the next morning – thankfully, as the start of the next leg was steep. Views were again incredible, the sea a multitude of blues amongst the many coves. Signage for Lochmara Lodge, one hour’s walk off the main track, showed a tropical island-looking resort, complete with an underwater observatory.
Having left The Portage at 9am, we arrived at Mistletoe Eco Village around 12.15pm, our luggage arriving by boat about 2pm. The waterfront village has lodges, camping spots and rooms but is self-catering.
Once back on the Queen Charlotte Track, a 1.5km/20-minute walk from Mistletoe, the trail undulated before heading downhill and leading through bush, fern groves, and along the edge of pine forest. At Grove Arm Viewpoint information boards told the history of Anakiwa, Picton, The Grove and other settlements. Dropping down, we reached our destination, Davies Clearing. Its beach at high tide makes a great swimming spot. The DOC site, a flat open reserve with a shelter and compostable toilets, is 100m from the track. If you’re after meals and accommodation, you can arrange to have your luggage dropped at Anakiwa where there are several lodges. This is a 22km walk from The Portage, taking five or six hours.
The sea lay milky green below a moody sky on the next morning’s 45 minute, easy walk to Anakiwa at the end of Queen Charlotte Sound.
Five days after setting out, I was happy not to walk further with my 15kg backpack. Had I taken advantage of the daily luggage shuttles, resort accommodation and restaurant meals I might have walked back to Ship Cove to once again enjoy postcard-perfect landscapes which are at times stunning beyond words.
Queen Charlotte Track was damaged by weather recently. Campervanners note that Kenepuru Road, leading to DOC Cowshed Bay campsite and The Portage, is currently closed.
Queen Charlotte Track: qctrack.co.nz
Luggage shuttles (Luggage can be arranged to be shuttled between resorts each day, so walkers need only carry a daypack, if using DOC camping sites shuttles can only be done on some days as water access is not available): cougarline.co.nz
Day walks are possible between lodges with water-taxis available for return journeys.
DOC’s Cowshed Bay Campsite has facilities for campervans. See nzmca.org.nz for more info. This site is handy for day walks on the Queen Charlotte Track.
Looking for motorhomes or caravans for sale in NZ? Browse our latest listings here.